Venue: Drama Barn
Like listening to a symphony, watching Fourth Movement felt slightly long. Nevertheless, the performance offered a captivating mixture of hilarious mischief and tragic snapshots, as it weaved and knitted the threads of a love triangle between estate-agent Robin (Alex Ferguson), violinist Ada (Poppy Bullard) and her husband and musical conductor John (Hugo Dale-Harris).
Robin is a portrait of modern loneliness as the un-introduced visitor to Ada’s hospital bedside; creepily encroaching on the speechless invalid, he confesses to her of stalking her musical profile on Wikipedia, before stealing out with her framed concert photograph. Just as the true nature of Robin’s hospital visits are becoming ever more questionable, the husband John makes a sudden appearance. The plot thickens when Ada leaps out of bed to rescue Robin from the same fate as Jimi Hendrix as he chokes in vomit on the bedside floor- and thus unmasks the cover of her own deceitful infirmity.
Pretty emotional stuff- Fourth Movement approaches some difficult issues with grim humour in its scenes of hospital degradation (“it always stinks of disinfectant here, except when someone shits themselves,”) domestic violence, self-destructive loneliness and grieving. However, the play is more attentive towards experimenting with dramatic form to frame these powerful moments. The film-like flurries of scene changes and flickering ‘sequences’ were ambitious, particularly to the logistics of stage props, but successfully developed the performance’s lilting pace and helped alleviate the sometimes static staging and sluggish monologues. That said, Ellie Roberts was clearly not afraid to push the envelope in directing the near-realisation of Robin’s erotic fantasy; the bed fumblings of Robin and Ada provoked gasps and squeals of delight, not just from the audience.
Sex is always tricky to pull off on stage, but the brave and humorous way in which the actors tackled it, particularly the coquettish Rachel (Alex Kampfner,) served to highlight the talents bringing each role to life. Dale-Harris’s explosive character shifts erupted with consistent shocking power, and Hayley Thompson gave both parts of a nurse and a prostitute the warming energy of motherly affection. Poppy Bullard’s transformation from a near-mute stroke-sufferer to a liberated fornicator was startling but convincing, and Alex Ferguson delivered each scanty innuendo with increasing confidence and relish.
There were many bits that worked, and the raucous appreciation of the rarely-flat gags demonstrated the play’s worth in its ability to shock and pleasure with equal measure. However, the set changes and sequences demanded greater attention, and the flitting ballerina that occasionally appeared was unexplained and somewhat confusing, as was the solitary reappearance of Laura in the conclusion. The melancholy tones of the accompanying piano and violin anticipated an overturning of the underplayed presence of music in the University’s Drama Barn, but their effect became as displaced and empty as Ada’s repeatedly hopeless assertion “I’m go to go home and play the violin, for a start.”
The stark contrast in the final scene between Robin’s blooming happiness and John’s depraved grief left me pondering the question: is Fourth Movement a buoyant comedy balanced by brushstrokes of tragedy, or really a reminder of the very real effects that mental and physical illness can have upon the lives of individuals and their families? With the chance to grow in two more performances this weekend, hopefully it will answer this question by being both.